Humans enjoy art. There is ample evidence, from the earliest cave art and petroglyphs, to endless art festivals, to newer information from brain research using MRI scans. We were designed to enjoy art. Just the same, I recently had the occasion to sit in a newish waiting room. There was nothing on the walls! I mentioned this to the receptionist, who took a minute to look at the bare walls as if seeing them for the first time, then shrugged her shoulders and went back to her paperwork. What has brought about this paradox? Why, if we enjoy art, is art not a universally important part of all our personal environments? I believe the art community needs to accept some responsibility for this circumstance.
Remember when art was supposed to be beautiful? The identity politics of gender, race and sexuality have replaced an ageless quest for elegance, truth, beauty and honest pleasure.
Sophisticated art collectors and critics praise our product with words like challenging, difficult, dark or edgy, especially if the artist advocates a stand on an issue of social justice. Of course they also consider composition, technical skills, aesthetic judgement, and an artist’s ranking among peers as judged by awards received and price appreciation. However, most of our potential audience are not sophisticated art collectors or critics and, I suspect, are seeking a more straightforward dynamic. When a piece works, we all know it. It looks right. Each element of the piece is essential. Our internal logic tells us the piece had to be the way it is, could not have been otherwise. Our appreciation is effortless.
I sense that by emphasizing the works sought by collectors, we in the art community are distancing ourselves from a wider audience. We have inadvertently given notice that only the sophisticated may truly enjoy our work, and those with less formal art education shouldn’t bother trying. Art has been displaced and become a non-essential part of their environment. I am not advocating lowering the bar for our work standard. But just as we have found a place in the art community for the self-taught artist and primitive art, I suggest we accept nontraditional or self-defined art appreciation as being equally worthy of our effort.
Making art involves a creative process and a physical effort. I love it. In that sense, I make art for myself. I also like to believe that I “paint for the average Joe”. If the viewer enjoys my work because it goes with her couch, or reminds him of a favorite uncle, or just makes them feel good, I consider that a success.